Socialist Party Ireland: Not for the public domain
Craig Murphy, a member of the Socialist Party in Ireland, reports on the resignation of four prominent comrades and the dishonest response of the leadership
On Sunday July 7 an aggregate meeting of the Socialist Party (Committee for a Workers’ International Ireland) was held in Wynn’s Hotel, Dublin to discuss the resignation of four comrades.
Notably these comrades had individually emailed letters of resignation to the party staff. Moreover those resigning had occupied positions of considerable importance: Jimmy Dignam had worked in Joe Higgins’ office in parliament; Richard O’Hara had been branch secretary in the Swords branch in north Dublin during the Clare Daly debacle which dogged the SP throughout the second half of last year and worked full-time in parliament; Andrew Phelan had been involved in forming the independent Fightback group in the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (outside party stricture); and Megan Ní Ghabhláin had similarly been involved in organising a militant opposition to Croke Park 21 in the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, which is one of the two largest teachers’ unions in Ireland. Hence their resignations could not pass without mention.
That the comrades had written letters detailing their differences and that an aggregate meeting had been organised to discuss the resignations had been made known to me at the previous branch meeting. The letters themselves, however, were not to be revealed to members until the Sunday aggregate for fear they would “fall into the public domain”.
When I arrived at Wynn’s on Sunday I began summarising the most salient arguments of O’Hara’s letter - as his arguments were the most developed - as soon as I received a copy. Summarisation was compelled, as members were not allowed to keep their copies - the absurdity of having a ‘democratic discussion’ regarding the resignation letters, while not being allowed to view the letters beforehand and retain them afterward, unfortunately seemed to be lost on the rest of the room. Clearly the intention of holding the meeting was to reassure the SP’s uninformed membership of the infallibility of the leadership and pre-empt any further dissension.
With 60 members in attendance, the meeting began with a 40-minute lead-off by Kevin McLoughlin, the SP general secretary. McLoughlin’s talk did not address primarily the content of the resignation letters. Instead, as was his stated intention, he focused on the ‘Irish context’ in which the comrades resigned (as opposed to the hallowed Egyptian context). In his view the decisions to resign were only explicable against this background: the difficulty of party-building since the crisis, the collapse of the United Left Alliance (ULA),2 the failure of the Campaign Against Household and Water Taxes (CAHWT) to prevent the implementation of the Property Tax and the rollback of trade union opposition to ‘Croke Park 2’ represented by the Haddington Road agreement.3
As I had quickly read the letters prior to the beginning of the meeting, it swiftly became clear to me that in concentrating on the Irish background to the resignations, McLoughlin was attempting to provide an explanation of the comrades’ decisions to resign utterly removed from the reasons given. And so the resigned comrades were variously described as being disheartened or demoralised by the trials of the Irish situation (due no doubt, of course, to their inability to see the dazzling militancy of the Egyptian masses). Furthermore, given that those who resigned had not participated in party activity for some time before their resignations, their disagreements with the party were reduced to being the result of inactivity itself. This crude, false judgement distorts the reality that the inactivity and resignation of comrades were both products of a common disillusionment with the nature and conduct of the SP itself. Moreover, it is intended to consign the reasons for withdrawal from party activity and ultimately resignation to the realm of psychological rationalisation; not political disagreement.
The little of the content of the letters McLoughlin did address was done in an unprincipled manner. For example, Richard O’Hara’s criticism of the use of the slate system in national committee elections, on the grounds that it institutionalises conformity amongst the NC and, alongside the secrecy of NC and executive committee meetings, produces unaccountability of the leadership to the membership of the party. McLoughlin dismissed such reasoning by pointing out that the slate system used by the SP was also subject to candidate nominations by individual members of the party to the slate, which will then be considered by the outgoing leadership. As the reader has no doubt recognised, this is merely an evasive, incidental argument and does not amount to a principled defence of the use of a slate system. As for the papal secrecy of NC and EC meetings, the general secretary had nothing to say.
Going further still, McLoughlin incredibly construed O’Hara’s criticism of the slate system as an attack on the very concept of leadership and party, when he referred to the departed comrades as pandering to an “anarcho mood that’s out there”. This falsification was to be parroted by almost every other speaker during the course of the meeting.
When the floor was opened for discussion, the circumlocutions of McLoughlin gave way to a slew of vulgar denunciations. In general, I will not waste the reader’s time chronicling who said what exactly; a worthless exercise, given that it all congealed into a droning three-hour morass of philistine pontification. Rather I will detail the recurring sophisms which were used, first to adulterate and then to speciously dispense with the protests of the resigned comrades, in a reprehensible, straw-man fashion.
The resigned comrades were repeatedly accused of abandoning the revolutionary party. The evidence for this being furnished by O’Hara’s confession: “Ultimately I do not regard myself as a Trotskyist.” The various speakers took this as O’Hara’s self-imposed fall from grace, the guilt of which had driven him, inevitably, away from any faith in the party of revolution. Tony Saunois from the CWI’s international secretariat jolted to the conclusion that all the arguments of the resigned are just “rationalisations for their abandonment of Trotskyism”. Saunois also did not miss the opportunity to reaffirm the laity, by explaining that, even though the ULA and CAHWT had been failures, they were but a foretaste of things to come. After all ‘the crisis’ is still with us.
Should we dare look, however, to the writing of the heretic O’Hara we would find he had “been in the process of clarifying [his] thoughts on what type of party is needed in the struggle to overthrow capitalism and [had] come to the conclusion that the Socialist Party cannot serve as this party”. Moreover, “In recent years, there has been a large amount of scholarship on Leninism and Bolshevism and its misinterpretation by those on the left and right.” He continued: “I believe that a large part of the answer to failures of the left lies here. The actual experience of the Bolshevik Party needs to be rediscovered and transplanted to a modern context in order to rebuild a genuine revolutionary socialist party” - a veritable Hydra of counterrevolution indeed. As for the historical research - a reference, of course, to the work of Lars T Lih - it was dismissed from the floor as the preserve of academics, not genuine class warriors.
And so it continued, with the departed comrades having the charge of temporising with reformism added to their ahistorical, anarchistic anti-Trotskyism. Since this is merely the corollary of the supposed abandonment of the revolutionary party, it does not merit serious discussion.
Take note, however, of the SP’s complete inability to recognise any differing Marxist conception of revolution and revolutionary politics. Mind you, this is not to give the SP the credit of having any clear understanding of what a socialist revolution is and what it entails (in the SP to articulate the need for such an understanding would be considered ‘dogmatic’ and ‘ultra-leftist’). But it does give us an insight into the monolithic sectarianism of the SP, where ‘revolutionary’ means us and ‘reformist’ means them. Without any recognition of the political tasks of a Communist Party the meaning of these words will continue to be consigned to the realm of sectarian mudslinging (alongside such shibboleths as ‘dialectical and undialectical thinking’).
Abstract and concrete
The greatest refusal to hear criticism, however, was announced with claims that O’Hara’s letter contained too many “abstract generalisations” and not enough “concrete criticisms” of the party. Noting the bourgeois prejudice here (where ‘abstract’ equals ‘bad’ and ‘concrete’ equals ‘good’), let us take a look at some of O’Hara’s frightful abstractions:
- “... fundamentally I do not feel the party is a truly democratic organisation that it is built in a way that will allow it to grow, nor do I feel that is capable of dealing with the low level of political and class consciousness at the moment and rebuilding the workers’ movement.”
- “I feel there is a serious democratic deficit within the Socialist Party. Slates are an inappropriate way of electing a leadership. No minutes, records of votes or written reports of national committee or executive committee meetings are distributed. It is impossible for ordinary members to know which members of the leadership bodies are playing a positive role and which ones you might agree or disagree with on a particular issue.”
- “Branch democracy is also non-existent. In essence, the full-timers pick those people that they think are most equipped to build the party in a particular way and install them as the branch committee, ultimately making the most important decisions about how the branch is run, if not all the finer details.”
The true terror of the word ‘democracy’ here lies not in abstraction, but that it could be misunderstood as a majority of the membership having control over the direction and operation of the SP. Sadly the term was dismissed from the floor as being “just a phrase”.
- “Discussion, debate and disagreement around serious issues of perspectives, tactics and theory have to be encouraged within the party. They simply are not and I do not believe they ever will be.”
- “There is a doctrinal and dogmatic approach to theory which generally consists of new recruits having the politics of the party ‘explained’ to them enough times until they agree.”
- “Rosa [the SP-sponsored campaign for Reproductive rights, against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity] is a front, in the style of the SWP, designed to bring potential recruits closer to the party”. (Rosa, we were assured, was no front, as the SP’s website openly acknowledged that it was the property of the party.)
- “There are other issues that I find deeply problematic: our (lack of) trade union work, our perspectives and attitude to the campaign against the property tax (which struck me as deeply unrealistic); I also think the paper is extremely poor - a low level of politics and lack of theory, the lack of real input about the content from ordinary members and the drab and repetitive nature of the articles”.
But where is O’Hara going with all this? After all, it is just ‘all so complex’. For, you see, the lack of democracy in the SP is not related to the absence of discussion within the SP, which has nothing to do with the dogmatic approach to theory foisted upon the membership, which has no bearing to the abysmal quality of the paper to which members cannot contribute, and none of these things can be associated with the adoption of deeply unrealistic positions or the establishment of sectarian fronts over which the membership has no control.
For the party apparatus to recognise the connections between these ‘issues’ would be to recognise that they are responsible for the inability of the Socialist Party to grow beyond anything but a sect. It is their institutionalised conduct of control and obedience which ensures that the SP will always drive away members - whose participation in activity is always voluntary - as soon as they begin to think critically: ie, for themselves.
1. There exist no means for members to alter the course of the organisation. Decisions are made by the executive committee, which is elected from the national committee, which, though elected by the membership, will rarely be opposed due to the slate system. Once the executive’s decisions are made, they are passed on to the branch committees, which, after deciding how the branch is to enact the refined will of the EC, initiate a branch ‘discussion’ on the activity the branch members are expected to perform. It is not a coincidence that the phrase ‘flesh out’ is often used as a synonym for discussion in the SP. Members are not deciding on positions and activity, but rather are simply concretising what has already been decided.
2. Should a comrade object to the new course in the midst of a branch meeting, the party staffer present will typically take them aside and offer them the opportunity of a private meeting in the SP’s offices, where they will have the party line explained to them ad nauseum. The SP’s high turnover of membership - an effect of the executive’s usurpation of all strategic decision-making - means that, should the dissenting comrade persist, they will find themselves isolated in the branch, surrounded by inexperienced and uncritical new comrades. The only recourse, it seems, is resignation.
3. If I may offer a criticism of my own of O’Hara’s letter, I take issue with his reference to the SP’s “over-emphasis on agreement with the finer details of the revolutionary programme”. Similarly two other resigned comrades expressed sentiments of basic programmatic agreement and even concern for the pillorying of the SP’s programme, due no doubt to its participation in the ULA and CAHWT (and, perhaps more simply, parliament). While O’Hara was being diplomatic, I find all three statements to be founded on the falsehood that the SP actually has a programme. No such programme exists.
A Marxist programme would be a document which, having been produced and deliberated upon by all members of the party, would outline the general views and ambitions of communism - abolition of the state, of classes, of the law of value, of patriarchy and women’s oppression, all of which are to give way to the free development of the individual as the condition of the free development of humanity, productively, sexually, intellectually. Alongside this would appear a list of concrete demands, usually divided into a political section, the purpose of which is to outline the revolutionary democratic means by which the rule of the capitalist class (the rule of law) shall be supplanted by the workers’ republic (the rule of the majority); and an economic section, which attempts, through the reality of struggle, to improve the position of the working class under capitalism, to aid the pre-socialist organisation of labour and to develop the workers’ understanding of themselves as a class.
4. In contrast the SP, with its transitional method, aims to tailor its demands to the present consciousness of workers as they are, not as the future ruling class, in the erroneous belief that participation in working class struggle of any kind will generate a socialist consciousness.
For example, the SP held a public meeting prior to the conclusion of the Haddington Road agreement, during the first half of which the awfulness of the Croke Park agreement, the trade union leadership, and austerity generally was expounded unto death - as though the audience did not know. Following an almost mute floor discussion, the meeting was continued with the airing of the usual vague reassurances that the SP stood for “democratic and fighting unions” - in point of fact a falsehood, given that the SP, until the Croke Park 2 ‘no’ vote, viewed trade unionism as a waste of time and actively discouraged Phelan’s and Ní Ghabhláin’s efforts. And, to reassure the floor of the SP’s ‘credibility’, the table presented ‘solutions’ to the Irish state’s €16.2 billion fiscal deficit. There followed the expected reformist drivel about the need for higher corporate and capital gains taxation, a wealth tax, a financial transactions tax and so on. Given that Ireland’s ‘Celtic tiger’ boom was the unanticipated result of the republic’s long-standing tax haven status and that the Irish bourgeoisie’s place amongst its class globally is maintained by its international financial services, one must conclude that it is ‘easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle’ than for these demands to be realised.
At the meeting’s very end, Joe Higgins had the presence of mind to tersely remind the floor that we stand for socialism and do not believe that capitalism can be ‘fixed’ anyway. This no doubt transitional approach amounted to nothing more than a sectarian advertising adventure. It is akin to trying to persuade someone who believes the Earth to be flat that it is in fact a sphere by first convincing them that it is a cube. The terrible irony here is that such ‘credible’ demands are utterly impossible to achieve under capitalism and do not even articulate the need for socialism. They are truly transitional to nothing; save sowing illusions.
The inevitable effect of this ‘transitional’ routine - in which the (supposed) socialist consciousness of the SP plays no part - is that the SP’s ‘programme’ is nothing more than an eclectic, incoherent mess of demands that could never advance the cause of socialism. Socialism is an utter non-sequitur as far as the actual practice of the SP is concerned. And suddenly the abandonment of ‘socialism’ by ULA TD Clare Daly for mindless community activism no longer looks inexplicable.
Without the membership majority animating the party through a directly elected leadership, bound to a Marxist programme, which can only be augmented by the majority, and facilitating the debate and polemic necessary, not only to democratically arrive at positions, but to allow comrades to develop themselves as Marxists, the SP will remain as profoundly alienating a place. This produces a constant membership turnover, whereby new recruits are garnered by the fatiguing of established members. The result - the SP’s inability to build an involved cadre membership - is compensated for by its bloated apparatus and national committee (roughly comprising 20 and 35 people respectively, in an organisation of little over 100). Thus is the sect reproduced!
One is forced to conclude that the SP will never be the party of the Irish working class.
1. The Croke Park agreement - named after the Gaelic Athletic Association’s largest stadium, where negotiations between the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the state took place - was signed on June 6 2010. After the previous year’s budgetary adjustment of €4 billion, partly resulting from 5%-10% reductions in public-sector pay, there was a trickle of trade union militancy among public servants. In order to maintain control of the situation the state promised the unions that there would be no further pay cuts or forced redundancies in the public sector in exchange for their compliance with the government’s plans for public sector rationalisation. As of March 2012 the agreement has resulted in 28,000 ‘voluntary’ redundancies and a €3.1 billion reduction in public-sector pay.
2. The ULA brought together the SP, the Socialist Workers Party in Ireland and other groups and campaigns to contest the 2011 general election. Five ULA candidates were elected as TDs, but this did not stop the sectarian infighting and the SP walked out of the alliance in January 2013.
3. The failed ‘Croke Park 2’ agreement was voted down by union members’ ballots in February this year, with the opposition being led by teachers’ and nurses’ unions and the police. Its successor, the Haddington Road agreement, is only slightly amended, and will lead to €1 billion in public-sector pay cuts, extended working weeks and effectively eliminates the overtime for which many public-sector workers (particularly the police) are dependent on to ensure mortgage obligations can be met.